Tag Archives: Jesus

CHRISTIAN TRADITION AND THE INVADING SON OF MAN

The following is a guest post by author Andrew Livingston.


 

Craig Evans: In your view what is the single most important passage in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) for which a strong argument for authenticity can be made that suggests that Jesus viewed himself as divine?

Mike Licona: …The apocalyptic Son of Man [is what] I’d go with…Mark, the earliest Gospel, regards Jesus as this apocalyptic Son of Man, this divine figure…It’s in Mark, it’s in Q, it’s in M, it’s in L, it’s in John, and it’s in these multiple literary forms—biography, sayings, literature, and letter [sic]. I think that’s extremely strong [evidence for historicity]. And this apocalyptic Son of Man does things that only can be done to [sic] God…I think they have great claims to historicity, that Jesus actually believed himself to be this apocalyptic Son of Man. [1]

This is Mike Licona’s favorite (and for all intents and purposes, his only) argument for why you should believe that Jesus was God Incarnate and not merely a human prophet. It isn’t just Licona either: Christian apologists in general constantly harp on this notion that Jesus thought of himself as “the apocalyptic Son of Man”. For those not in the know, that refers to the traditional Christian interpretation of the book of Daniel, chapter 7, verses 13-15:

“I saw [in a vision of the future] one like a human being (Aram: “one like a son of man”) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. [2]

Because in biblical stories Jesus frequently applies this “Son of Man” moniker to himself, and because some of the passages in which he does so make it sound like he’s the one who will do the judging on Judgment Day (Matthew 13:37-43 being one example), Christians basically take it for granted that the term “Son of Man” is synonymous with “God almighty” (or at least with “God incarnate”). Of course, if you but read three sentences further into that passage in Daniel you’ll find that there’s a downright hellacious case of cherry-picking going on here. Three more sentences, that’s all it takes. Here is what the passage looks like when those three sentences are not left out:

I saw one like a human being (Aram: “one like a son of man”) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.

First the text says, “I saw one like a son of man…To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.” And then, just below: “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever.” The author is explicitly defining with the latter comment what he meant by the former one. He’s talking about the kingdom of Israel itself, not some literal single person who somehow both is himself God and at the same time is getting presented before God.

Nonetheless, Licona tells us that instances of Jesus applying the “Son of Man” moniker to himself are so widely scattered throughout different early sources by different authors, who were writing so many different kinds of things, that there is no way the idea can not be based in historical fact.

A couple of obvious problems present themselves which a lot of you probably already knew about or have thought of on your own while reading this. For one thing, if two sentences in The Old Testament can prove anything then surely two sentences in The New Testament can do the same, and utterly decimate any notion that Jesus thought of himself as God Incarnate:

“A man ran up and knelt before [Jesus], and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Christian apologists only make their position look all the weaker with their desperate attempts to deny the plain sense of those words. James McGrath has explained the matter with admirable succinctness at the following link. By all means read this; it’s just a couple of paragraphs.

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2014/11/jesus-piety.html

It must also be noted that (as far as the first three Gospels go, at least) most of the passages wherein Jesus is spoken of as “this apocalyptic Son of Man” make explicit predictions that the apocalypse in question was supposed to happen while the first generation of Christians was still alive:

These twelve [disciples] Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “…When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:5, 23; see also Mark 9:1, Mark 14:61-62, and the entirety of Mark chapter 13)

And so there are two possibilities exactly. The first possibility is that Jesus was a false prophet (c.f. Deuteronomy 18:21-22)—which is a thought Christians and Muslims will equally find intolerable. [3] The second possibility is that The Bible indeed cannot be trusted to depict Jesus accurately, at least when it comes to these “Son of Man” passages. Those are your options. There is no third option.

The above two points suffice all by themselves. But there is another point that can made and it reveals in some detail how the matter of “the apocalyptic Son of Man” actually proves—better than virtually anything else can—just how unreliable The New Testament and its depiction of Jesus can be.

Remember that The Bible is one single book only because happenstance has made it so. The various writings of Paul, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Elder, and so forth can be found between the same two covers for no other reason than that some people decided a long time ago to make a point of placing them between those covers. There was never any concerted effort by dozens of different authors living in separate countries and separate centuries to compile their works into one volume of their own accord. These are sixty-six different writings we’re talking about (or seventy-three, if you’re a Catholic) by dozens of different writers. As such anything that begins with, “What does The Bible say about…” is automatically an unintentional trick question. Which Bible author do you mean? The relevance of this fact, as explained by Shabir Ally, is:

Most people read the New Testament Gospels vertically. They start at the beginning and they go towards the end, and then they start a new Gospel after that. And that is fine…but we also have to read with peripheral vision. We have to read across, horizontally, from one Gospel to another. In other words, when we come to an episode in a Gospel we have to keep our fingers there on the text and then flip over to another Gospel where the same episode is related, and observe how they are similar but also pay attention to how they are different. [4]

And when you do apply such a vertical reading to the Gospels an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge. While the depiction of Jesus which Licona refers to as “the apocalyptic Son of Man” is indeed widely scattered across independent early sources and found in various literary forms it’s nonetheless all but impossible to find one single solitary example of any two authors independently referring to the belief at the same time. It seems as though everybody thought they knew (and perhaps even treated it as a given) that Jesus had made such claims about himself yet nobody could agree on exactly when he had done this.

Look for yourself. Pick up a Bible and find any place in any of the four Gospels wherein Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man”. Then flip through the pages and find a place where another Gospel tells the same story and see if Jesus uses the phrase in that version of it as well. I’m telling you now, he won’t. Even the speech from Matthew I cited above serves as an example of this paradox. Read the “Mission of the Twelve” section in the tenth chapter of Matthew and then read the equivalent passage in Luke (where it’s also in the tenth chapter). In Matthew’s version of the speech Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man”; in Luke’s version he does not.

The same thing keeps happening all throughout the text. Examples abound. As John Dominic Crossan put it, “There is only one single case where the Son of Man expression occurs in multiple independent attestation; that single exception is [the] ‘Foxes Have Holes’ [story found in The Gospel of Thomas part 86 as well as Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:19-20]” (emphasis Crossan’s). [5] The examples of this I’m about to show are the ones I’ve personally selected because I find them to be the most striking and undeniable cases; as I list them I want you to bear in mind that there are more where they came from. Follow the endnote if you want to see where you can read a more complete list.

Example #1:

“Everyone…who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)

“Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9)

Example #2:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:27-29)

When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

Example #3:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23)

Example #4:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29)

“Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:10)

Example #5:

While [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. (Matthew 26:47-50)

While [Jesus] was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:47-48)

Example #6:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with [Jesus], asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side. (Mark 8:11-13)

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40)

Example #7:

Some people brought a blind man to [Jesus] and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.” (Mark 8:22-26)

[Jesus] saw a man blind from birth…He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see…[Jesus] said [to the man], “Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. (John 9:1-38)

If Jesus genuinely had been known as “the Son of Man” right from the very start, and known that way because it was his own self-designation, why then shouldn’t any two authors ever be able to agree on where it is he used the label? Does it not seem instead that the whole “Son of Man” concept somehow crept into Christian tradition at an early point and has stayed there since whereas the true historical Jesus, during his own time, never said anything of the sort? [6]

And it doesn’t end there. As James Crossley has observed there are discrepancies regarding when and how often Jesus gets called the son of anything (i.e. whether it be “Son of Man” or “Son of God”) depending on the date of the text in question. The later the document, the more often this happens. As you read what Crossley said bear in mind that Mark was the earliest Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, and John was the latest:

Jesus’ reference to himself as “the Son” (Mark 13:32) reflects the developing Christology of the early church. [In the Gospel of Mark] it is used by Jesus of himself only in [Mark 13:32,] (other less explicit possibilities being 12.6 and 14.62), which…should make us a little suspicious as to whether it is actually from the historical Jesus. This is supported by the fact that Jesus uses the term “Son” of himself only once in Q [i.e. those passages that are precisely the same between Matthew and Luke, probably coming from a lost text that predated both], Mt. 11.27/Lk. 10.22). In contrast Jesus uses it of himself 23 times in John where it clearly has some reference to Jesus’ divinity (cf. 5.18-26; 10.30-39). Worth noting too is Matthew’s editing of Mark where Matthew heightens the Christological use of the term “Son” (Mk 6.52/Mt. 14.33; Mk 8.29/Mt. 16.16; Mk 15.30/Mt. 27.40; Mk 15.32/Mt. 27.43). The title of “Son” is obviously a developing Christian tradition…” [7]

I hope you’re beginning to see why Muslims are never convinced or even impressed when Christian evangelists endlessly repeat like a broken record that The Qur’an was written “six hundred years too late”. Not a single one of these evangelists is willing to compare separate writings and authors from within The New Testament and allow them to contradict each other. Apparently it’s perfectly fine to emphasize how early the book of John is compared to The Qur’an—but under no circumstances is any importance to be attached to how early the book of Mark is compared to John. Which is a shame, because were they only willing to think that way they’d discover that our historically worthless text from six centuries too late is right on the money—not just with this issue but over and over and over again, on subject after subject after subject.

I have perfected your religion for you, and I have completed My blessing upon you, and I have approved Islam for your religion…People of the Book [i.e. believers in The Bible], now there has come to you Our Messenger, making clear to you many things you have been concealing of the Book, and effacing many things. There has come to you from God a light, and a Book Manifest whereby God guides whosoever follows His good pleasure in the ways of peace, and brings them forth from the shadows into the light by His leave; and He guides them to a straight path. (Surah 5; verses 3, 15-16, A.J. Arberry’s translation)

 

NOTES:

[1] From the Mike Licona-Dale Martin debate “Did Jesus Believe He Was Divine?”. The video I’ve transcribed this from is embedded in my article “A Few Brief Words on N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God”.

[2] All biblical quotations in this article are copied from The New Revised Standard Version, using the website Bible Gateway.

[3] Of course, finding an idea intolerable isn’t all by itself grounds to dismiss it as untrue: let me therefore recommend for you an article that pretty thoroughly debunks all forms of this Jesus-as-Chicken-Little depiction of the historical Jesus. (Which, by the way, seems to be a view held by the majority of scholars—at least depending on what country the scholar lives in. You might want to bring that fact up the next time you see a Christian evangelist try to bedazzle somebody with argumentum ad populum arguments such as, “A majority of scholars agree that Jesus’s disciples believed he had risen from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind.” A majority of scholars consider Jesus to have been a false prophet! That boat has sailed.) That article is “A Temperate Case for a Non-Eschatological Jesus” by Marcus Borg, which over the course of just a few pages settles the matter for good and all, in my own estimation.

[4] From the Shabir Ally-James White debate “Is The New Testament We Possess Today Inspired?”.

[5] “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” by John Dominic Crossan, from the appendices (pages 454-56 and 440). Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers. First HarperCollins paperback edition published in 1992.

[6] I have a suspicion that the way this happened (also the way Christianity turned so quickly into an apocalyptic movement expecting a first-century Armageddon) involved the panic that the Jewish people in Jerusalem went through at the time of the Caligula crisis circa the year 41. This hypothesis, however, would need an article all its own, and I’m nowhere near sure enough or educated enough to write such a thing yet. Consider this note a case of, “I’m just throwing it out there.”

[7] “The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insight from the Law in Earliest Christianity” by James G. Crossley, page 23 (or chapter 2, in case the page number is different in your copy of the book). 2004 T & T International, a Continuum imprint. London/New York.

Minimal Facts Indeed: A Reply to Gary Habermas Regarding Jesus’s Resurrection

The following is a guest post by author Andrew Livingston.


 

Let me start with a confession: I sometimes have trouble telling what counts as a cliché and what doesn’t. I think I’m hardly alone in this. The internet age has kind of scrambled our circuits. A joke or argument or meme that makes you bury your face in your hands thinking, “You know, if I wasn’t impressed the first 493 times I heard someone say that…” might sound fascinating and refreshing to the friend sitting at your side. And nowhere am I more confused about these things than when it comes to these matters of interfaith debate. Right now, for instance, I’m going to respond to the “minimal facts argument”; do you know what that is? I honestly can’t tell whether nine hundred and fifty out of a thousand people will think I’m beating a dead horse or if the entire subject is some obscure nerdy thing only people like myself who have way too much time on their hands could possibly feel over-immersed in.

Let me put it this way: how often have you seen a Christian bring up the following Bible passage during an argument with you?

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:3-11) [1]

If to you that’s a familiar situation, chances are you were indeed hearing the so-called “minimal facts” argument for Jesus’s resurrection, whether the actual phrase “minimal facts” itself came up or not.

If you haven’t heard any of this before, though, it’s all laid out in the following video from the Veritas Forum’s Youtube page, “The Resurrection Argument That Changed a Generation of Scholars—Gary Habermas at UCSB”. It is this video in particular I’ll be replying to.


Given that I can’t very well transcribe an hour and a half of speech (much of which can easily be skipped over without seriously damaging the flow of Habermas’s argumentation) I encourage you to watch the video first, in its entirety, and then
continue reading.

Let me make it clear right off the bat that I have little interest in bickering over who has the academic consensus on his side—in this debate or any other—despite Habermas’s constant obsessing over said topic. I know that a lot of other Christian apologists will tell you the same thing: “We’re only iterating what a majority of scholars already agree on.” But the only poll to that effect any of them ever seem to cite was conducted by Habermas himself! Alan Segal, on the other hand, said that “rather than there being a consensus, there is actually a small group of scholars made up entirely of the faithful trying to impose their faith in the form of an academic argument on the general academic community.” [2] Is Segal right? Is he close? Could it matter? I have caught a fair amount of flak from other Muslims by saying this but truth is not determined by majority vote—even from the very most learned people. In the end all I care about is whether or not something makes sense; the rest is fluff and strutting. And so I will focus entirely on the reasoning Habermas employs, and why it will never add up no matter how many other people have made the same mistakes as he.

Here, without further ado, is Habermas’s attempt at historical proof for Jesus’s resurrection, interspersed with my commentary and rebuttal:

What if the skeptics are right [and The Bible is] neither inspired nor reliable? And it’s a book of ancient literature, on the level with Homer or Plato?…My argument is [that] we [still] have enough data…to argue that Jesus was raised from the dead…[To show that] The New Testament…fulfills the criteria for historiography…I’m going to be doing my Minimal Facts Argument. I’m going to be citing only data probably ninety-five percent will be accepted across the critical spectrum from conservative scholars to atheist scholars who study these disciplines…

I want you to take note of what Habermas just said: he is going to treat The Bible just like he would an unimportant secular ancient document, and not make any assumptions about its factuality beyond the points he specifically argues. Remember this pledge of his: fix it firmly in your mind. Because believe you me, it’s going to be an issue more than once before we’re done.

[Paul said to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:3,] “I gave you what I was given, as of first importance. We’re talking about the heart of Christianity right now,” he says, “and I’m telling you what I was told.” Okay…here’s the question: when and from whom did he receive this material? Do we have a clue?…Richard Bauckham [of] Cambridge University says that [it] is a consensus position amongst scholarship [that] Paul received this material about 35 A.D…How in the world would they know that? Let’s do the math…When did Paul have his Damascus road experience? Or for skeptics, when did Paul think Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus?

You guys caught that, right? If not, I’m going to explain later what he just did.

Paul says, [in] Galatians 1:16, “I met Jesus.” And then he said, “I didn’t go running up to Jerusalem to meet those who were apostles before me. I went out into Arabia by myself…and then I went up to Jerusalem…I spent fifteen days with Peter, the head apostle…I saw…no other apostles except James the brother of Jesus…” Now, what were they discussing during that time? Well, the theme of the short book called Galatians is the nature of the gospel…“Here’s the gospel, get it right. Don’t change it. If you change it you’re anathema. Preach the right thing; don’t try to get there some other way. It’s by grace through faith.” All right, you got it? “Don’t mess up the gospel.” That’s the bottom line. So when [Paul] goes to Jerusalem…five or…six [years after the crucifixion], if they weren’t talking about the gospel centrally, [it] at least had to come up.”

In case it isn’t already clear, what Habermas is trying to prove is that the things Paul taught or believed he must have either learned from, or first cleared with, Peter (who would definitely know what was true due to his connection to Jesus). Yet in the process of arguing this point Habermas refers to the opening paragraphs of Galatians, in which Paul expresses a very different attitude:

Even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Chapter 1, verse 8)

So here is my first question: if Paul wouldn’t have believed an angel who told him he was wrong, why then would he have been so interested in what Peter thought? Must we avoid the obvious reading here: that the reason Paul so emphatically asserted what little contact he’d had with the original disciples was to make the point that he didn’t learn much from them?

Habermas continues:

“I know what I would ask Peter and James first. This’d be my first question to them if I’m the apostle Paul: ‘I’ll tell you what I saw on the way to Damascus if you tell me what you saw a few days after the crucifixion. How did [Jesus] look? Come on, guys, give it to me…” And I might say this if I’m Paul—depending on how bold Paul is—and you know Paul is pretty bold from his epistles: “Guys, the three of us have something in common here. I’m not trying to dog you guys, but you know, we all have a point in our life when we weren’t exactly exemplary followers of the Lord. I was on my way to kill or imprison men, women, and children [here the audio is briefly imperceptible in the Youtube recording] in the name of Christ. I’m not proud of that. James, you grew up in a house with the Messiah and you were an unbeliever. Somebody told me you used to think your brother was insane.” (That’s what Mark 3 says. That [Jesus’s] family thought he was beside himself.) And James might’ve hung his head and say, “I didn’t know any better.” [Paul might here continue:] “Peter, you have an exalted position as the head apostle: I’m not trying to dog you but you denied your Lord three times…”

I told you to remember Habermas’s assurance that he wasn’t going to be treating The Bible as even generally reliable, let alone taking it for granted that anything is true simply because The Bible says so. And already, so soon into his argument, he’s gone against that pledge on three occasions. First off, we don’t actually know whether Paul’s conversion happened within the same time zone as any Damascus road: indeed, if we don’t assume that the book of Acts is reliable then we have no actual story surrounding this event at all. Paul’s few-and-far-between references in his own letters to what he thinks happened to him are always intriguingly vague—most of all the one from the opening of Galatians:

God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me… (Chapter 1, verses 15-16; a footnote here allows that “in me” and “to me” are equally possible translations of the original Greek)

As if that wasn’t enough Habermas then goes and treats both the rejection of Jesus by James and the denial of Jesus by Peter as historical facts without one single word of explanation as to why I should believe in either. I thought we were supposed to be taking a minimalist approach here? Watch for this kind of thing, guys: every time a Christian apologist tells you his arguments won’t be relying on biblical inerrancy you need to listen carefully because within ten minutes at the most he’ll go back on his word and not realize he’s done it. Fundamentalists of any stripe tend to be psychologically incapable of discarding their views even purely for the sake of argument. They might try to but sooner or later the supposedly discarded assumptions will slip back in. I don’t think they can help themselves. It’s like a reflex.

Come to think of it, let me amend my advice a little bit: the next time a Christian apologist tells you that his arguments won’t be relying on biblical inerrancy, interrupt him right then and there and ask him why on earth they shouldn’t rely on it. Is that a matter you should trivialize?

Habermas continues:

There’s a little Greek word…It’s in Galatians chapter 1, verse 18. The Greek word is historesai…The English translations usually slaughter it. I know two or three word studies on this, done by non-Evangelicals. It’s a very interesting word. It means ‘to interview so as to acquire truth’. Probably the closest word we have today to depict this…[is] “eyewitness news”. The word historesai means “check it out”…

And Paul says, “I went back…five or six [years after Jesus’s crucifixion] because I wanted to investigate.” Then, as we go from the end of Galatians 1 to Galatians 2—no chapter break—he says…“I went back up, after fourteen years, to see the other apostles and to set before them the gospel I was preaching, to see if I was running, or had run, in vain…I went back up to Jerusalem to make sure that we were all on the same page, to make sure we were all presenting the same gospel.”…And just a few verses later, in Galatians 2:6, these five words in English: “They added nothing to me…” [And then in] 1 Corinthians 15:11 [Paul]…gives a list of the appearances [of the risen Jesus to various followers] and then he says this: “Whether it is I or they”—who are “they”? “They” are the other apostles, he says so in the context—“this is what we preach and this is what you believe…”

I have so very, very many questions.

First off, I’m willing to bet some of you people have had an experience in your lives that you would compare, in however small a way, to Paul’s own. A sudden conversion. There could indeed be someone reading this article right now who believes that he’s met Jesus. And if not, some of you have likely known a person who’s had a sudden conversion. I want you to put yourself in that person’s shoes. You’ve just spent the first twenty or thirty years of your life either completely uninterested in religion or even holding Christianity peculiarly in some sort of contempt. And then something happens and you become a devout convert practically overnight.

Let me ask you something about the person who’s had that experience: is this the guy you’d expect to approach Christian belief as if he’s some sort of investigative journalist?! “Excuse me, sir, I don’t mean to trouble you but I just saw Jesus come down from heaven in a burst of beautiful light and announce to me in a booming voice, ‘I AM THE SON OF GOD. YOU ARE NOW MY MESSENGER.’ Would you mind, Dr. McGrath, if I ask you a few questions about early Christian history? You see, I’d like to convert but I also really want to make sure I’ve got all of the facts in before I do anything too hasty.”

Well, it could happen. But even if this was indeed Paul’s attitude why on earth would he wait fourteen years to double check that he hadn’t misunderstood anything Peter told him? Why would he need to double check at all? You can’t have it both ways, Habermas: either Paul’s two-week encounter with Peter and James must naturally have confirmed that their beliefs and his were the same, or they needed to talk it over again at a later time. Which is it already?

Which brings me to another question: since when did Paul ever have the attitude of an investigative journalist—at whatever point in his life, and whatever Greek verbs he may technically have used during a hasty rant? Take a look at this verse from chapter 1 of the very same letter Habermas is building his case around, 1 Corinthians:

Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness.

“Jews asks for signs…but we preach something that’s a stumbling block to this.” Does that sound to you like the words of a man who’s determined to base his beliefs in sound empirical proof? Scholar though he may have been Paul was a fideist through and through, and proud of it. [3] I’m not saying this is a good thing or a bad thing, only that it must be acknowledged as the worldview he had. Saying, “This is what we preach and this is what you believe,” is not the same as saying, “This is what we’ve proved through careful fact-checking, and as a result all educated parties have come to a consensus on the matter.” (Besides which he was talking there about the idea that the dead could be resurrected—that is to say, he was talking about the belief in Judgment Day. Jesus was his counter-example to the denying of this doctrine he’d seen from some of the Corinthians. For more detail on that see my response to N.T. Wright.)

You may now ask, what exactly was it then that Paul and Peter were talking about during those fifteen days in Jerusalem? Well, frankly, your guess is as good as mine. It’s kind of silly to speak of what must surely have happened during a conversation two thousand years ago that no one recorded. If I had to guess, though, I might side with Gerd Ludemann on this (a man Christian apologists always quote when they talk about the resurrection yet never quote more than one sentence from). Perhaps James and Peter were more or less humoring Paul, because they didn’t want conflict and because they knew that the donation he gave might help a lot of suffering people. As Ludemann put it:

The Christians of Jerusalem probably adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Paul [and his mission to Gentiles]: on the one hand his action was obviously inadequate, since those who had been converted by him did not observe the Torah. Indeed, it was even dangerous, since their example constantly prompted Jews to transgress the law. On the other hand, it was better than nothing, since Christ was being preached (cf. Phil 1:18) and centers were being founded in which the work could be continued—and perhaps corrected by delegates from Jerusalem.

Assuming that these reflections are accurate, the generous gesture [of a donation] on Paul’s part was perhaps what won them over, all the more so since from the gift they might infer certain legal requirements. Certainly Paul is restrained in describing this aspect of the conference when he asserts, “Those who were of repute added nothing to me” (Gal 2:6). But then follows another clause, “only they would have us remember the poor, which was the very thing I made it my business to do” (Gal 2:10). Therefore the most important resolution of the conference was the least apparent: the pledge of a collection for the Jerusalem community; and Paul’s further efforts for this collection were among the most important of his activity. [4]

Again, it’s all guesswork. But that’s exactly the problem: when we read Paul’s account of the Jerusalem meeting we’re hearing only one side of the story regarding an incident that ended with a heated argument (Galatians 2:11-14). Is that actually such a solid foundation for historical knowledge? Would you be so confident even settling a minor argument between two of your own friends under similar circumstances?

Habermas continues:

So far I’ve been focusing on…five to six years after the cross. But I’m going to assert that we can get back all the way to the cross. We can close this gap…Why does Bart Ehrman say we can get this message back to one to two years after the cross?…

Because he thinks the disciples of Jesus came up with an adoptionist (not Trinitarian) view of Jesus as a coping mechanism due to his tragic death, and that the resurrection belief was tied to all of that. The man wrote an entire book explaining this!

[He says that] because of this creedal argument [I’m about to give you]. They can tell that this was early preaching. This [creed] was what the earliest apostles preached coming out of the gate…Peter and James gave it to Paul: they had it before he had it.

Now, when I say an early creed, one of the reasons they know it’s an early creed is because in the Greek it reads stylistically. 1 Corinthians 15:3 and following reads like this in the Greek: ‘DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH, DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH!’ Two stanzas, with data…[expressed in] a way that’s easily memorizable. Why? Because most New Testament scholars today believe that the vast majority of Jesus’s audiences—contrary to other things you may have heard—were illiterate. Up to ninety percent. What do you do when you teach somebody who’s illiterate but you want them to teach somebody else? You tell stories that they’ll remember—ah! Parables! And you give them short, pithy statements that they will memorize: ‘Turn the other cheek.’ ‘Walk the extra mile.’ ‘Do unto others.’ And when you codify things into a ‘DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH, DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-DAH!’ [structure]—especially if there’s an Aramaic original, which is the language Jesus speaks—now we know you’re really going back in the church, because somebody had to put this together.”

To take the mere fact that a Bible verse contains a creedal statement originating from oral tradition and treat it as if you’ve found some sort of smoking gun proving that verse’s factuality is beyond absurd. The “Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship” lists eighty-five different examples of New Testament “passages that may be hymnic or creedal”.

Eighty. Five.

Thirty-three of those eighty-five creedal formulas come from letters traditionally ascribed to Saint Paul (and that’s if you leave out the book of Hebrews).

Eighteen of those thirty-three are from the seven undisputed letters of Paul (that is to say, the seven letters practically no scholar ever declares to be forged or misidentified: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians).

A full one third of that number—six out of eighteen—can be found in 1 Corinthians alone. [5]

Now let me ask you this: how many out of those eighty-five creedal passages have you ever heard anyone claim to confidently trace the origin of? One, and one only: that supposedly all-important passage about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. [6] What makes it so special? Why do we so definitely know that Paul learned this creed from Peter as opposed to, say, Romans 11:33-36 or Colossians 2:8? Or did Paul indeed learn those 17-32 other creeds from Peter as well? Or did he sit down with him and go through a checklist after hearing the creeds somewhere else? Why is 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 treated so uniquely? The answer is plain and simple: confirmation bias, nothing more. The passage can be traced to Peter simply because the people of Christian scholarship—a profession where even the distinct minority of members who don’t self-identify as Christian are still hugely influenced by people who do—want to be able to trace it to Peter. They’re forcing the conclusion.

But let’s go ahead and say that every single thing Habermas told us is absolutely correct. We’ll say that Peter taught Paul the 1 Corinthians 15 creed himself, face to face. We’ll even go so far as to say Peter that personally formulated that creed, and that he did so within months after that first Easter Sunday, and that Paul was determined to learn the creed and understand it correctly, and that he succeeded at doing so. What exactly does any of this prove? That the founders of a religion believed in it and therefore must have been correct? Where, for example, did Peter learn about the appearance of the risen Jesus to those five hundred brethren? How sure can we be that he didn’t simply hear a rumor of such a thing and credulously accept it without doing enough historecai of his own? What do we know?

In fact, let’s go so far as to say the resurrection did in fact happen. What am I supposed to infer about the meaning of it without dragging in other passages from a Bible that doesn’t have to be treated as even generally reliable? If the mere fact of a wondrous act were enough to confirm a theological belief all by itself then Moses’s contest with Pharaoh’s sorcerers would’ve been over the moment they turned their staffs into snakes. Ancient Jews knew that people didn’t come back from the dead every other day but all the same the idea of somebody doing so was still old news to them (see 2 Kings 13:20-21 for just one example). The Gospels themselves claim that there was a rumor going around during Jesus’s own time that John the Baptist had returned from the dead (Mark 6:14, 8:27-28). Did the people who spread that rumor think that John had opened the door to God’s salvation for them?

You see? Even in the best case scenario you need to cram in forty unsupported assumptions for Habermas’s speech to be of any use. This is what happens when someone uses an academic argument simply to disprove pesky skeptics or liberals, instead of doing it to advance our academic knowledge of the subject in question. Their reasoning won’t merely be poor, it’ll suffer from that particular kind of sloppiness you always get when someone’s heart isn’t in the task.

Am I imagining things or could it be that the whole reason Christian apologists so often feign these minimalistic techniques with their arguments is that they won’t feel comfortable if they do have to defend biblical inerrancy? Because they know very well (at least on some level) that’s a lost cause?

 

APPENDIX:

There doesn’t seem to be a fitting place in the article proper to work in such a long quotation as this so I’ll just put it here:

[Here are some] peculiar difficulties [which] surround the mention of the appearance [of the risen Jesus] to “more than five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep.” No note of place is given, and it is only hinted that the manifestation occurred after the first appearance to the Twelve and before the appearance to James. It is astonishing that the tradition has left no mark on any of the four gospels. It may have appeared in the lost ending of Mark, but there seems to be no positive reason for supposing that it did, and in any case one would have expected the remembrance of a fact of which there were more than five hundred witnesses to have survived independently of the fate of a single MS.

This is a serious objection to the acceptance of St. Paul’s statement, and other considerations do not increase our confidence. Who were the five hundred? and [sic] why were they gathered together? They were not Judeans; that is certain, for the Church at Jerusalem before Pentecost did not number five hundred. Are we to suppose that after the disaster of the crucifixion even Galilee contained five hundred brethren willing to leave their occupations and gather together in some remote place in the name of the defeated Master? If the story is historical, some summons must have been issued, and a place and date appointed. It is not impossible (Mark xvi. V 7), but it seems unlikely that tradition would have lost sight of a mass meeting such as this.

The suggestion has been made that the story of the first gospel which does embody a tradition of an appearance in Galilee (Matt. Xxviii. 16 ff.) is a description of this manifestation to the five hundred brethren. No such impression is given by the narrative as it stands. ‘The eleven disciples went into Galilee unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them; and when they saw him, they worshiped him.’ Who would suppose that a crowd of five hundred was present? Nor is the commission which follows suitable for a general body of brethren.

We have no evidence on which to form a certain conclusion, but the balance of probability seems to incline towards the view that St. Paul has accepted a story which was not generally known in the Church, which contained intrinsic improbabilities, and which did not represent with any degree of accuracy an historical occurrence… [Footnote: Or could this be St. Paul’s version of Pentecost?] Once the faith in the resurrection had been established, a misunderstood phrase in conversation, a fanciful interpretation of prophecy, or the pure spirit of romance, might be enough to send a story on its way. It is often impossible to trace the rise of a legend, but that legends do arise is not open to question. (Percival Gardner-Smith) [7]

 

NOTES:

[1] All Bible verses in this article (or at least those that aren’t part of a quotation by somebody else) come from the New American Standard Bible, as accessed through biblegateway.com.

[2] “The Resurrection: Faith or History?” by Alan F. Segal. Found in “The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue”, page 135. Edited by Robert B. Stewart. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. Copyright 2006 Augsburg Fortress.

[3] For further examples of Paul’s fideism see 1 Corinthians 2:9-13 and 13:8-12. You’ll notice that these examples likewise come from the same letter which supposedly contains in its fifteenth chapter an all-important proof of Christianity’s unique foundations in empirical historical fact.

[4] “The Collection for the Saints as a Polite Bribe: An Effort to Humanize Paul,” by Gerd Ludemann. Accessed via bibleinterp.com on Monday, August 13th, 2018.

[5] This is kind of embarrassing but for once I can’t tell you the page number or edition of the book I’m citing. I’ve had a snapshot of the relevant page on my phone for a long time now and for some odd reason it doesn’t accompany further pictures showing me the title page and what not, as with the case of every single other book I’ve ever cited this way in my articles so far. The good news is that this is after all an encyclopedia we’re talking about and therefore it couldn’t be very hard for you to locate the passage yourself. Probably the info is listed under an entry called “creed”. I can at least tell you that the first line of the page I’m citing from reads:

“1:15-20). Some have binary parallel structures (e.g. 1 Cor 8:6), and some have ternary parallel structures (e.g. Eph 5:14).”

[6] All right, every now and then someone will say something similar about Philippians 2:5-11—which hardly seems like any less of a hasty generalization to me, and which still leaves you with a ratio of eighty-three to two.

[7] “The Narratives of the Resurrection: A Critical Study” by P. Gardner-Smith, M.A., dean and fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, pages 18-20. Methuen & Co. Ltd. First published in 1926. I’m reading from a red-brown hardback.

Missionary Mishap: The Word of God, Jesus & Islam

I’ve been interacting on Twitter a lot more often and occasionally I come across folks who are angry with or at Islam, and through conversation they realise they are wrong. This one Maronite Lebanese Christian is a quick example of how not knowing their own scripture and not knowing about Islam can result in an awkward dialogue.

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and God knows best.

The Problem of the Thief and the Crucifixion

Introduction

In perhaps what is one of the most perplexing passages of the New Testament, we find a story during the alleged crucifixion of Jesus the Christ that challenges the very core of commonly held Christian beliefs about Christ and salvation. We read from Luke 23:39-43 (NIV) the following:

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The Problem

If we were to ask a confessional Christian today (one that knows of and adheres to the doctrinal confessions of the faith) what one needed to believe in for salvation, we would perhaps have a very long list. It would likely include belief that Jesus died for the sins of all, that Jesus was God, that Jesus was both man and God (belief in the hypostatic union), belief that the New Testament is the word of God, belief in the Godhead, in the Personhood of each member of the Godhead who were all co-equal and co-substantial to each other.

Yet the 5 verses from the Gospel eventually attributed to Luke present a severe theological problem that strikes at the very core of Christian theology. The question before us is, what did the thief say, believe and do to be granted salvation? When we examine the verses we can identify only two things:

  1. That Jesus was an innocent man.
  2. That Jesus was a King (or would become one at some point).

All the thief had to do to be granted salvation was to accept that Jesus was innocent and thus did not deserve to be crucified, and that Jesus would survive in some form such that he would become a king or have a kingdom. By this standard, all Muslims will be granted entry into the kingdom of God. The thief did not have to believe in the New Testament, did not have to accept the Old Testament, did not have to express belief in the Trinity, did not have to believe in the Godhead, did not have to believe in the two natures of Christ, did not have to even accept Jesus as the Messiah! He did not have to believe Jesus was the incarnate word of God, he did not have to believe that Jesus was the 2nd person in the Godhead…in other words, the thief did not have to believe in anything that Christians today hold to be true.

There is perhaps an even greater issue here. The thief claims that Jesus was innocent and thus did not deserve to be punished. See, Christians necessarily believe that while Jesus was innocent, he deserved to suffer and be punished, because he came to suffer for our sins as an act of grace:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 (NIV).

“And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” – Luke 9:22 (NIV).

According to the above passages, Christ must suffer and must be killed. However, the thief on the cross, seemingly disagrees with these teachings. The thief explicitly says that not only is Jesus innocent, but that he did not deserve to die. In other words, the thief is expressing an Islamic position that Muslims would agree with. Jesus did not deserve to die, he did not deserve to suffer and he was an innocent man. In other words, Jesus rewards a thief and claims the thief would be in the Kingdom of God with him because he denied the core tenets of Christianity while affirming core beliefs of Islam.

The thief in no uncertain words explains that his crucifixion on the cross is justified, but Jesus’s isn’t, however, confessional Christians would argue that in order for sin to be paid, it had to be justified through the death of Jesus the Christ. This presents a problem for Christianity. Jesus rewards a man and accepts him into the Kingdom of God for expressively, clearly and absolutely, rejecting core Christian beliefs about salvation!

Comments by Scholars

These 5 verses deliver a devastating blow to the consistency of the doctrine of salvation in Christianity. These verses essentially approve of Islamic beliefs and indicate that Muslims according to Jesus…would be in the Kingdom of God, since we believe that he was innocent and that the alleged crucifixion was not justified in any way. These are things a Christian today cannot deny, these are things a Christian today has to believe in, yet a thief with Islamic beliefs only accepted two tenets, both of which agree with core Islamic beliefs, and was rewarded and praised by Jesus! The scholars have had difficulty in understanding these passages. It must first be noted that only one Gospel records this incident and this is the Gospel of Luke:

“Luke’s account is noticeably independent of the other three. The three sayings of Christ’s, round which his narrative is grouped, are preserved by him alone. We shall best grasp the dominant impression which the Evangelist unconsciously had himself received, and sought to convey, by gathering the whole round these three words from the Cross.” – MacLaren’s Expositions.

The other three Gospels are noticeably silent on the thieves, except for the case of demonizing them:

“In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” – Matthew 27:44 (NIV).

“Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” – Mark 15:32 (NIV).

The final Gospel, later attributed to John (which John, we don’t know), does not mention any of the words of the thieves, it does not even identify them as thieves or rebels. Instead, this is all the Gospel as to say:

“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other.” – John 19:32 (NIV).

Resolving the Problem

Some Christian commentators (exegetes) have attempted to navigate around this narrative disaster by implying that the thief/ rebel had other beliefs, that he believed Jesus was a God or that Jesus was meant to die for his sins and thus was saved because of this. The problem with such an argument is that the only Gospel to mention this incident does not indicate any of these things. The Gospel does not indicate that the thief/ rebel believed in anything other than what was recorded. In other words, this is a poor attempt at reading between the lines and should therefore be rejected. If scripture is sufficient for understanding salvation, then the plain reading of these 5 passages should be accepted without having a need to insert anything into scripture, to force it to say something it does not.

Conclusion

These five passages are a disaster for any Christian who takes their faith seriously. Every core tenet that one needs to believe in to be considered a confessional Christian is necessarily discarded by the thief and approved of by Jesus himself. In fact, the very beliefs that Jesus was an innocent man and did not deserve to die, that his death is unjustifiable is an Islamic belief. Thus, there are two arguments to be claimed here:

  1. According to Jesus, all one has to do to be granted entry into the Kingdom of God is to accept that Jesus is innocent and that his death was unjustified (which affirms Islam’s beliefs about Jesus). Therefore the beliefs of most Christians have been deemed unnecessary and useless by Jesus himself.
  2.  That belief in Jesus dying for the sins of the world is unjustified and that Jesus affirms this, thereby establishing that him dying does not acquit us of our sins (essentially refuting core Christian beliefs about the purpose behind Jesus’s death in the first place).

May God guide our Christian brothers and sisters to the truth of Jesus the Christ, which is to the Oneness of God.

and Allah knows best.

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